Justin Trudeau has strong slate of aboriginal MPs when considering cabinet

As prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau starts choosing his first cabinet and considering how to implement the party's platform, one of his key decisions will be who to appoint as minister of Aboriginal Affairs.

Will Trudeau appoint the 1st indigenous minister of Aboriginal Affairs?

Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau has several aboriginal MPs in his caucus to consider when building his cabinet, including (clockwise from upper left): Jody Wilson-Raybould, Robert Falcon-Ouellette, Dan Vandal and Hunter Tootoo. (CBC)

With an impressive slate of aboriginal MPs in the new Liberal caucus, expectations are high that prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau will choose at least one, if not more, for his first cabinet.

But will Trudeau, who has repeatedly committed to forging a new nation-to-nation relationship with Canada's indigenous people, do something unprecedented and appoint an indigenous MP as the next minister of Aboriginal Affairs?

The new Liberal cabinet will be sworn in on Nov. 4.

A record 10 aboriginal MPs were elected Monday, eight of them in the Liberal caucus. And while most will be new to the House of Commons, a number are considered strong candidates for cabinet positions.

Assembly of First Nations' Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day says there are two schools of thought on what it would mean for Trudeau to put an indigenous person in the position of Aboriginal Affairs minister.

I think it would be historic in a good way. I think that would be a beautiful sign of confidence.- Robert Falcon-Ouellette, MP-elect for Winnipeg-Centre

On one hand, putting an aboriginal person in the role would be symbolic and send a message that Trudeau truly means it when he says there will be a new relationship with indigenous peoples — and that such a person would be closer to the issues that the department oversees.

On the other hand, "the level of expectation from First Nations are going to require high impact and high output right away," Day says, adding that an experienced MP who already knows how to navigate the system might be better suited to hitting the ground running.

Day points to Carolyn Bennett, who is not indigenous and who was the Aboriginal Affairs critic for the Liberals in the last Parliament, as a good prospect.

Yet, Day also points to an MP such as Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former AFN regional chief for British Columbia, as someone who would be qualified for the job. Wilson-Raybould won the new riding of Vancouver Granville.

AFN New Brunswick and P.E.I. Regional Chief Roger Augustine agrees, but isn't sure he would wish the job upon his former colleague.

"I would rather see a non-Indian person as a department of Indian affairs minister," says Augustine. "It's a tough file ... and the job for the minister of Indian Affairs is to administer the Indian Act, which is contrary to what a lot of the chiefs want across this country. I don't think a First Nations person would want to be the minister to administer that."

Augustine is skeptical about how much power an individual minister will be able to wield in order to make real change.

"I've seen it all. I've seen ministers who really wanted to do great things, but if you are going to be the minister of any kind, you plead allegiance to Canada, not to First Nations."

Of course, Trudeau has promised this time will be different. Wilson-Raybould says this moment in history is an opportunity for the government she's part of to see the unfinished business of Confederation through and "create the space" for indigenous people to succeed in Canada.

"Aboriginal issues are Canadian issues," Wilson-Raybould says. "Whoever the Aboriginal Affairs minister turns out to be, that person will be supported by a caucus that is supportive and understands issues facing aboriginal people in this country are issues we have to deal with collectively."

Liberal promises

Robert Falcon-Ouellette, who beat the NDP's Pat Martin in Winnipeg Centre, is another new indigenous MP headed to Parliament Hill.

Justin Trudeau addressed the Assembly of First Nations general assembly in Montreal just weeks before the federal election campaign began. He has promised a new approach to relations between the federal government and Aboriginal Peoples. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Like Wilson-Raybould, he says he has no idea if he is being considered for a cabinet position of any kind.

Falcon-Ouellette acknowledges the position of Aboriginal Affairs minister would be a challenging one, especially considering the kind of promises the Liberals made in their platform, including $2.6 billion over four years for First Nations education, a public inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and an end to boil-water advisories in First Nations within five years.

But he clearly doesn't share Augustine's nor Day's concerns about the portfolio going to an indigenous person.

"I think it would be historic in a good way. I think that would be a beautiful sign of confidence," he says.

Falcon-Ouellette says the issue closest to his heart is child welfare and the problem that so many aboriginal children are in the care of the state, something he vows to work on regardless of whether he is in cabinet.

Other new aboriginal MPs named in cabinet speculation include Hunter Tootoo, who beat out Conservative Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, and Dan Vandal, who won in the Manitoba riding of Saint Boniface-Saint Vital.

But Day says no aboriginal person should be put into the position just because they are aboriginal.

"Canadians can rest assured that First Nations leaders across this country will not allow a federal government to take our First Nation MPs and make tokens out of them," he says.


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